Beyond coffee mugs and pens

Do's and don'ts of corporate gift giving

"What are we going to get the boss this year?"

"Is it politically correct to give a gift to my clients?"

"Uh oh, it's time for the Secret Santa exchange … again."

These are the sounds of the season - at least when it comes to the professional setting.

Bosses and underlings struggle with the politics of gift giving: how much to spend, what to buy, who to buy for.

For business owners, this time of year has traditionally been an opportunity to thank clients or gently market to customers with pens, mugs or calendars imprinted with the company logo.

In the corporate world, gifting is more complicated than the exchange of fruitcakes and Hickory Farms beef sticks. The nuances of giving and receiving are blurred by company hierarchies, peer relations and even formal policies.

"The gift you choose reflects on you and your career," said Marie Betts-Johnson, founder and president of the Rancho Santa Fe-based International Protocol Institute of California.

The issue becomes even muddier when factoring in the range of cultures and religions present in today's workplace, as well as economics, reporting relationships - what's appropriate for a personal secretary and boss is different than for a boss and pool of employees, Betts-Johnson said - and good old tradition.

"The rule of thumb is that you do not necessarily have to give a gift to your boss," Betts-Johnson said. "In fact, giving an expensive gift to your boss may be seen as apple polishing and, therefore, be detrimental to your career. The boss will feel obligated to return the favor and may very well resent it."

Gaily wrapped gifts have never been a part of the corporate culture at a computer technology corporation in the UTC area, where Susan Winer has worked for the past 10 years.

"I'm not aware of people even doing a Secret Santa thing or White Elephant thing, unless they do it in their little groups," Winer said. "The most I've seen is that people bring in baked goods sometimes."

Instead, Winer's company sponsors a Christmas tree, which employees are invited to decorate. The tree is later donated to a family in need. They also have the option of contributing to a toy collection.

Infusing corporate gift giving with the glow of philanthropy is a trend seen across many companies.

Lynn Muck, marketing director for Donahue Schriber Realty Group, which manages Del Mar Highlands Town Center, said employees sponsor several families in need by providing a complete Christmas meal and gifts. In addition, the company's holiday cards to clients and associates state that a charitable contribution has been made on their behalf.

While the fount of charity continues to flow, Muck said, sales statistics reflect a decline in spending at high-end stores and specialty merchants, likely venues for classic corporate gifts.

"I can see the trend is changing where (people) are spending their money," Muck said.

At some businesses, gift giving continues but is evolving.

Peyton Cabano, Willis Allen Real Estate marking director, suspects this may be attributable not only to economics but to the "go green" movement. She has seen a notable change in the gifts her company receives from vendors and professional associates. Instead of knickknacks and ornaments, they are more likely to receive a tin of cookies. And her real estate agents are careful to select logoed items that are useful, not just decorative. Calendars and notepads are some of the most popular items.

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